Innovation is Relative

IMG_2574The work of a school principal is challenging, but also highly rewarding. Each day brings something new and that’s exciting to me. As I think back on this work that I love, I recall the wise words of a former principal…

“It’s incredible how quickly you can lose touch with what’s happening.”

For all of us, regardless of our work, we must continue to learn and evolve in order to stay current and relevant. Nowhere is this truer than in education. While some things remain constant, like the power of relationships, and the importance of doing interesting, personalized, and meaningful work, almost everything else continues to change around us. Here in Surrey and around the province of British Columbia, we are now working with a new curriculum, grounded in the development of important core competencies we know our students will need to possess in order to thrive in our ever-changing world.

Thank you Rosemary Heights teacher, Kristin Visscher (@mommavisscher) for these images!

Evolution is key! Recently, I heard someone say something and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. They said,  “Innovation depends on your context.” Think about that comment for a moment and then think about how much the term “innovation” is used. I consider innovation to being something that isn’t just new, but better than what came before it! Therefore, what one person might consider innovative, another might consider dated practice. But, what’s most important is to simply take a small step and try to do what you do, better.

This concept is best understood when we reflect on our own learning and growth.

When I first became a principal, much of what I did was based on what I saw other principals do. One of these things was how schools communicate with parents. Traditionally, this was done through newsletters. So, once a month I would do what I thought I was supposed to do – I would brainstorm all the things I thought I should include in the newsletter such as a message from me, important dates, celebrations of past events, bell times, reminders…all very important information for parents to have. I would neatly put all this information together, have it proofread, printed, copied, and sent home.

It was good … I thought.

But, as time passed, the way I communicated seemed to become more and more disconnected, both in time and content, from the rich learning taking place. In the background, how teachers were communicating student learning began to transform as well. Gone were the days of reports cards three times per year, replaced by ongoing, responsive, and descriptive feedback through digital portfolios. Teachers were clearly in an innovative space with their communication, evolving, risk-taking, being vulnerable with their ideas and practice. How was I to work alongside my teachers and help them lead this shift if my practice did not model what I expected from them? So I went “electronic” sending the same newsletter in PDF form via email.

This too was good … I thought.

At the time, this was relatively innovative, because I could now add more visual content which was more effective in sharing what was happening. Even though my communication evolved to a weekly blog instead of a newsletter in 2012, my thinking around communicating student learning didn’t really change until 2014 when I moved to my most recent school and I pondered for some time what the title of the school blog would be. I had used the word “NEWS” in my previous school blog. And while it’s important for us to communicate the news and events of schools to parents, schools are about learning. So, the simple gesture of adding the word “LEARNS” to a blog title forced us to make a commitment to a certain type of communication – the language of learning.

Suddenly, everything happening at school looked different to me. During my travels into classes, through the hallways, even outside before or after school, at recess or lunch, every photo, video, or conversation was focused on one central question – “Where is the learning?” What I discovered is that once you start to view behaviour that way – through a lens of learning – you realize that school is not about isolated events, but rather that learning takes place all the time, in all situations, most of the time without the learners even realizing it. If our intent as school leaders is to foster a culture of meaningful learning, then what we decide to notice and communicate to our community is of significant importance. If schools are all about learning, how is this learning continuously captured and shared? Sometimes learning can be shared in a quick tweet, or a captioned image, or a gallery of images. Other times, the learning is so rich it is deserving of being communicated through a learning story. Yes, creating learning stories takes patience and time, but when the stories emerge, they communicate powerfully. Some of my favourite learning stories are about…

Fortunately, the myriad of tools at hand today make this process much easier than it used to be. Some strategies I found successful in telling the stories of learning:

  • I always take my phone with me and document continuously by collecting images and videos.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment. Find a colleague who you can lean on. Ask questions. Risk-take. Start small or start big … but start! Be creative. Have fun!
  • Focus on the learning by always looking through the lens that makes you ask the question, “Where is the learning?”
  • Take some time to reflect on what happens in your busy day and your interactions with students, teachers, and parents. Write a narrative about what you notice. Tell the story of what your school is about, or what you want your school to be about.
  • I started a free blog on WordPress. There are many platforms you can use. I paid extra to have a shorter domain name (cambridgelearns.com) and that allow me to upload and embed video directly into posts.
  • I created a Facebook page because my community was already immersed in Facebook use. I had to go where my families were.
  • I created a Twitter account to be able to quickly post links to the blog and information. You can connect your Twitter account to most other applications so that your tweets show up automatically on your school blog and website.
  • I connected my social media accounts together using Hootsuite, which allows you to post to multiple accounts at once.
  • I used a free app called Chirbit (there are many others) to record and publish our morning announcements each morning. Parents can hear exactly what their children hear. Teachers can hear announcements again with their class if they missed something. In schools with many families speaking a different language, we did a second set of announcements in another language. In this case, it was Punjabi and it was totally led by students.

We ask our students and teachers daily to risk-take, experiment, and personally grow. What a powerful message we send when we say we are willing to publicly do the same. Your “innovative” doesn’t need to be relative to others, only relative to yourself.

So, how will you get started? What will be your next step?

#corecompetencies      #communication      #creativity

Silly rabbit…Core competencies are for everyone!

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 9.25.20 PMThe world doesn’t necessarily need students who know ‘lots of stuff’, but rather learners who truly know themselves, what they are (and are not) good at, superior communicators, thinkers, and critical and creative thinking contributors to groups, communities, and the world. In other words, the world needs more possessors of essential communication, thinking, personal, and social competencies.

The most successful people among us have not only been able to learn, they’ve maintained the mindset that has allowed them to “unlearn” many of things we once thought to be true.

Heck, when I look at myself, I am constantly made aware of all the things I don’t know or need to get better at. It’s at these times, when I think about my own learning, that I think about all times I have leaned on my competencies –  the very competencies that are expressed and emphasized in our new curriculum – in order to KNOW, DO, and UNDERSTAND new things. Can you see in the following examples how the core competencies found expression?

If you take a moment to reflect on your own life, you’ll quickly start to see how the core competencies find expression in what you do!

So while we are all in a rush to help our students understand and internalize the language of the core competencies so that they can engage in the process of self-assessment, I actually think that it begins with us…yes, the adults. The way I see, you can’t help others see the core competencies in themselves unless you can see them, in some way, in yourself. So here goes a personal learning story…

I have chosen to reflect on an activity I do to help myself stay healthy and to reduce stress. It’s an activity that helps me feel better about myself by accomplishing goals, and gives me time to think about creative ways to solve problems in my work and life.  I started running about 5 years ago when, because of my work and simply getting older, I wasn’t in the type of good physical condition I once was.  I started running slowly, running 2, 3, then 4 kilometers at a time. Then one day, I dropped my son off for his soccer game and decided to go on a run before the game started. After some time, I realized I had run 7 kilometres already and my mind turned to a thought … you are only 3 kilometres from 10!  This was exciting because I had never run that far before – ever. But on this day, I did!!!

Fast forward to this year, I set a goal to run 1000 kilometres in one year. After a couple of months, I realized I was running 100 kilometres per month and that if I continued on this pace, I would make it to 1200 kilometres in one year.  I used an app on my iPhone to help me stay on track.  Then came December…and SNOW, SNOW, and more SNOW. Days passed and it was getting harder and harder to complete my runs. There was ice and snow on sidewalks and it seemed that each day, nature was handing me an excuse to not run. But, I persevered, even when I felt like quitting. Even on snowy days, I would hit the trails and I would keep going.

With 2 days left in the year, on December 30, I was left with some basic math:  2 days, 25 kilometres and a SNOWSTORM ON THE WAY!  I had to get the 25 kilometres in on December 30 because heavy snow would make it impossible to run on December 31. I had NEVER run that far before, but I did it. On the way, as if to be rewarded by nature, I saw the most beautiful sight – two curious deer on the side of the road watching me – encouraging me perhaps.  It was a magical moment I was able to add to my gallery of images on Instagram, continuing to capture the beauty I see around me.

I am proud that I set and accomplished my running goal for 2016. Now, I want to go further so I have set a new goal of 1300 total kilometres for 2017. So far, so good. As of this writing on March 6, I have run 232 kilometres and I am on track, with ongoing encouragement from my iPhone app and a little inner determination. Choose to challenge yourself with difficult things. It is only by doing this that your reveal your inner strength to yourself!

Some time back, I invited anyone on Twitter to take the #corecompetencies challenge. It was simple: find a picture on your camera roll, describe how it demonstrates the activation of one or more of the core competencies, then hashtag it and tweet it. The best way I can describe the uptake would be “slow”. That’s not to say some didn’t take the challenge, but evidently doing what we expect students to do is actually quite challenging.

If our aim is to “notice, name, and nurture” then surely there must be a shift in how we view the learning taking place in our schools. This shift will not only provide a new lens through which we can understand what we see in others, but also a new lens through which we can understand ourselves as learners.

So … I challenge you to allow yourself to not only be vulnerable in reflecting on your own journey as a learner through the lens of the core competencies, but to also make that learning visible to others.

#corecompetencies

Metrics

“The only journey is the journey within.”
-Rainer Maria Rilke

“Comparison is the death of joy.”
-Mark Twain

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How does one measure success? How does one assess how they’re really doing? What metrics should we use?

These are questions I ask of myself both personally and professionally, almost every day. About six months ago, I set a personal goal to become healthier and more fit. To accomplish this goal, I began going on a run every second day. It wasn’t something that I necessarily enjoyed, but I did get satisfaction in being able to run a set distance with greater ease every time I tried. Four kilometres turned to five, then to six. Each time I would get to a plateau, a place where I would say, “This is comfortable and I think I can go further,” I push myself to see the next distance I can get to. About three weeks ago, a thought popped into my head. Or rather, a number popped in to my head…the number 10…as in 10 kilometres. On that day, I ran 10 kilometres for the first time ever and was I ever proud of myself. This achievement represented personal success, not because I perhaps ran further than other people that day, but that I improved on a personal best. So now, 10 kilometres is my regular distance – my personal benchmark and success will be measured in my gaining greater comfort at this distance, until a time I can go farther.

Picture 10

While I am an intensely competitive person, I have come to realize that, not only is success relative, but that my only competition is myself. On my outings I see many other people on their own runs. Some I realize I could outrun without trying, while others I realize could run circles around me. Comparison, therefore, doesn’t really help me get the feedback I need. Nor does comparison with others make me feel good about how I am doing. I gauge my own success by comparing current runs with previous efforts.

Of course this relates to the world of education as well. It’s once again report card time, and for many parents, it’s a time of letter grades and questions:

“Did my child get as many A’s as…?”
“Is my child doing as well as …”
“How is my child doing compared with everyone else in the class?”
“What do these letters and numbers mean anyway?”

This isn’t to blame parents, because they grew up in the same education system that I did: an education system that associates symbols and numbers with levels of success and compares students to one another. These practices didn’t improve student learning then, and still don’t today. As a parent of three children who are very different from each other, and as a teacher/administrator who has the privilege to work with hundreds of children, I realize how very unique each child is and how using symbols, numbers, and comparisons as our key metric of learning not only moves focus away from the actual learning, but also disregards a person’s uniqueness. I believe we need to focus on delivering timely, specific, detailed, and meaningful feedback learners can actually use. I also believe we need to focus less on teaching specific content and comparing students based on how much of this content they can retain and then share back to us, and more on skills and “key competencies like self-reliance, critical thinking, inquiry, creativity, problem solving, innovation, teamwork and collaboration, cross-cultural understanding, and technological literacy.” (BC Education Plan, pg. 4)

But most importantly, we need to view each person’s learning as a personal journey, and to question the metrics we have used in the past to judge success.

How do you judge personal success? In what ways are schools working towards personalizing learning for students?